Colleen is a solid middle-aged mid-westerner of Anglo-Saxon stock who’s favorite comfort food is kimchi. Right, kimchi, the potent fermented Korean vegetable dish. In fact, she makes her own. So how did someone from Kansas end up loving such an exotic dish?
Colleen’s father served in Korea and fell in love with kimchi there. Returning to the states he couldn’t find it and started making it himself. Apparently none of her family will touch it but he got Colleen hooked and the two of them would sit at the kitchen table and eat it on saltine crackers while the rest of the family fled the room. To this day kimchi and soda crackers bring back those special times she and her father shared alone. Comfort.
This is comfort food. It evokes memories: experiential, emotional, and even spiritual. A Swanson’s Chicken Pot Pie reminds me of my mother dressed up, wearing makeup, and smelling wonderful. Those pies were our standard supper when she and my father went out in the evening and I confess I still occasionally buy one in order to relive, if from a great distance, that memory
In Serious Pig, John Thorne writes:
“That time lingers in my mind as ‘the chowder summer.’ It was the start of my life-long love affair with the dish. The fragrant aromas of clam juice and milk mingling together still evoke not only the dish itself but the whole experience: the driftwood I had carried up from the beach and sawn myself, now crackling in the fireplace; the chowder full of clams I had just dug, cleaned, and prepared, and potatoes I had carried back three miles from the store, heating in the big battered pot on the propane stove.”
When I shared an off-campus house with two other guys a frequent dish was something we called Grunt. It was ground beef, sautéed onions, and onion soup mix served on rice with sour cream — a poor student’s version of Beef Stroganoff. I still fix it on occasion, and when I do hear the Moody Blues and Firesign Theater in my mind.
Lynne Rossetto Kasper, host of “The Splendid Table” on NPR says,
“There is nothing, absolutely nothing that pleasures me more than a bowl of pasta and tomato sauce. When I want to reach out with all my love to my husband, a dish of pasta and tomatoes is almost always in my hands. When I am worn out and the world isn’t such a nice place to be in, I make tomato sauce and pasta. When time is short but dear friends must be fed with joy and not pressure, I make pasta with tomato sauce.”
We tend to think of comfort foods as having some link to our childhoods, and often they do, but some come along later in life, perhaps that sweet and sour chicken you and your spouse ate right after you were married when going out to dinner was an event, even if all you could afford was the cheap Chinese joint down the block. Or possibly, like Colleen’s father, it’s the Kimchi you shared with your daughter and no one else.
I made clam chowder last night which led me back to Thorne’s essay and, in turn, to thoughts about comfort food. My favorite comfort food is Choucroute, my mother made it when I was a child, but since then I’ve made it on the first cold and rainy day of each fall. It not only links me to my childhood, but has since then become a reminder that when each year inevitably begins to decline into cold and darkness, there’s still food and warmth, hearth and home, somewhere buried inside a child needing comfort. As I relish the porky goodness and pungent savor of my favorite food I know this winter too shall pass. I find comfort in that thought and the food that evokes it.